Autumn is a funny old time. Throughout the rest of the year, I spend much of my time telling anyone who will listen (and many who won’t) that I adore Autumn, that it is my favourite time and, at some stage, will probably launch into an enthusiastic rendition of ‘Autumn Days when the Grass is Jewelled’. And yet.
And yet, when Autumn does rear it’s crunchy, golden and russet head, I struggle. I become anxious. Anxious as the nights draw in. Anxious as I find myself trudging to work whilst the stars are still out. Anxious in a way that makes pathetic fallacies truly pathetic.
So, instead of brimming with long-anticipated cheer at the clear skies, and kicking piles of leaves, and delighting in the excuse to drink mulled cider, I find myself blue. The feeling that the days are shortening makes me panic that I will not complete what needs to be done, that I will fall behind, that I will have no time, until there is no daylight left at all.
It’s probably predictable to say that when I used to feel like this, I used to ring my mother. My poor, long-suffering mother. My mother who I would call and unburden my banal, quotidian sorrows, and then I would intone like a mantra ‘but I’m fine. It’s fine. Everything’s fine’. And I’d ring off, and get on with my life.
And my poor, long-suffering mother would not. I would, within moments, having talked them off my chest, have forgotten my introspective sorrows, and continue with my life. My poor, long-suffering mother would stew. She would worry about whether I was coping, and the intricacies of the things that had made me briefly miserable. I didn’t know at the time that me being temporarily unhappy was so hard for her.
The difficulty now is that I can’t tell anyone ‘but I’m fine. It’s fine. Everything’s fine’, because I’m not, and it’s not.
I am missing a very important piece of me, and of my everyday. Somehow, through talking with her, I could talk myself better. She was a little bit magic like that. Now, she doesn’t stew, but I do.
So my choice of Autumn food is an ironic one. Autumn calls for different foods at different times: sometimes you need something so full of seasonal veg, it will banish coughs, cracked lips and croaks; other times you need something so fiery and invigorating that you can fuel yourself from within and face the end of the working week; sometimes you need something quick and calming and warming. But what I need for mummy-less autumns are stews.
So this is for her. Autumn stew. This stew is a paean to Autumn. Packed with dark, rich, fally-apart meat and root vegetables, and cries out to be served with mash. This is not a quick dish. It is not a dish you could make on a week night.* It is determinedly slow. It takes patience, and heat, and repetitive, calming chopping. It is, without any exaggeration, my favourite dish to cook and to eat.
It goes like this:
Oxtail, beef cheek, and bone marrow stew
Makes: Four generous portions (Six if encased in pastry)
Takes: 5 hours
Bakes: 4.5 hours
1 kilo of beef cheek (if you can’t get cheek, you can use shin, or brisket, or stewing steak)
1 oxtail, chopped into manageable chunks (get your butcher to do this, for the love of God)
(At least) 1 generous piece of bone marrow, around 4-6 inches long
1 bottle of red wine
500 ml beef stock
4-6 cloves of garlic
Oil or butter
3 bay leaves
1. Preheat oven to 150 degrees C.
2. Heat oil and a smidge of butter in a pan. You want this to be really quite hot. If your beef isn’t already in manageable chunks, make it so.
3. Put some plain flour in a dish, season it with salt and pepper, and start tossing your beef in the flour, and then placing it in the oil. Once it’s in the pan, don’t mess with it, unless you’re actually turning the meat over. You’re trying to caramelise the exterior, not dust it for cobwebs.
4. When your meat chunks are browned, pop them into a large casserole dish. Do the same with your oxtail and bone marrow.
5. Chop all your veg into small chunks, mince your garlic, and pop those into your casserole dish, along with the bay leaves, the whole bottle of wine, and the beef stock.
6. Bring to the boil on the stove, and then cover with a lid. Put in the oven for four hours. Don’t fiddle with it! It will smell amazing; I repeat: do not fiddle with it!
7. Remove from oven after allotted time. Using a slotted spoon, or tongs, remove the oxtail and the bone marrow. Put them on a plate and allow them to cool, as they will currently be hotter that the sun. Once touchable, remove the bones and discard. Make sure you have kept hold of all the lovely bone marrow. This may have melted and dripped out of the bone already, but wiggle your knife inside to make sure. 8. Reduce the gravy still in the casserole dish by 2/3. Return the meat that you removed from the bones to the dish. If you are putting it inside a pie, ladle into the pie dish. If not:
8. TA DAH!
The Icing on the Cake
We ate this with potato and turnip mash, and sprout tops sauted in butter with toasted, chopped hazelnuts on top, but frankly I would be happy eating this from a bowl with a spoon.
If you’re planning on serving this as a dish, it is certainly a suitable impressive one, but it is not a beauty. For that reason, I tend to cover it in pastry. You can find my suet pastry recipe here.
Also this is an excellent dish for pregnant ladies: it is nourishing, high calorie, and brimming with iron. So much iron. More so if you eat it with a green leafy veg. Bone marrow is apparently also quite a common pregnancy craving, but this can be a sign of anaemia, so do get it checked. But then, either way, eat bone marrow to up your iron intake.
*But it is one which you can happily box up into Tupperware and portion out throughout the week. Even the darkest, most frustrating Tuesday is cheered by the knowledge that this stew is a mere 5 minutes’ heat away.